Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 23, 2001
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There has been much debate concerning whether Slaughterhouse Five, both the film and the novel upon which it is based, should be considered science fiction or fantasy, or merely a psychological profile of a mentally disturbed man. The story is somewhat auto-biographical, Vonnegut himself having been an American POW held in Dresden, Germany, when that city was fire-bombed by allied forces in 1945. The author specifically states at the beginning of the novel that the hero, the innocent Everyman Billy Pilgrim, claims (with several repeated "he says") to have become unstuck in time. It is obvious to me the author intended the story to be an indictment against the horrors of war. Whether Billy really travels back and forth to various periods of his life, or whether this is a delusion brought on by his war experiences and other traumatic events, is peripheral to the story, the main thematic point being war produces no heroes, only victims.
Billy is played by Michael Sacks, in a subtle and effective performance. This was his film debut, but I don't think he had any other significant roles in his career. I can recall him in only one other film, and then as just a minor supporting character. But as Billy Pilgrim he was the perfect foil for the vagaries of life, adrift in a world over which he has little or no control, stumbling along a path of least resistance. He marries the first and only girl he ever dates (Sharon Gans), the rich and overweight daughter of an optometrist. He attends the Illium School of Optometry owned by his father-in-law, who later sets him up in his first practice. His schooling is interrupted by the war however, in which he serves as a chaplin's assistant. Separated from his unit following the Battle of the Bulge, he encounters two other soldiers (Liebman and Conway) who have been abandoned by their squad leader. They are captured and transported to a POW camp, and later moved to Dresden for a work detail. Dresden was an open city with no war-related industry, and the Americans are assured it is the safest place to live out the remainder of the war.
But on February 13, 1945, the picturesque city known as the "Florence of the Elbe" was the target of intensive fire bombing by American and British forces. More than 130,000 civilians were killed, which is nearly twice the casualty count of Hiroshima. Billy and his fellow prisoners survived in an underground bunker, and the following day they emerged to find a totally devastated landscape. Billy describes it as looking like the end of the world. The POWs are assembled into details to recover and cremate the bodies of the German families baked to death in their cellars.
A few months later the city is liberated by Russian soldiers and Billy returns to America. Following a brief period in which he suffers a mental breakdown, he finishes his schooling, marries, and begins what on the surface appears to be the typical life of the American dream. His father-in-law provides them with a luxurious lakeside home, his optometry business is successful, they raise two children, he joins the Lion's Club and is later elected his chapter's president. Then his story-book existence begins to unravel. A charter flight taking Billy and fellow Lions to a Montreal convention crashes in the mountains of Vermont, with Billy the only survivor. His wife dies from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by an auto accident on her way to the hospital to see Billy. After his recovery, Billy returns to his home where he insists on staying alone, much to the dismay of his daughter and her husband. Following a brief visit by his son (Perry King), a Green Beret on leave from Vietnam, Billy is abducted (or so he claims) by an alien spacecraft from the planet Tralfamadore.
Viewed purely in chronological order, Billy's life is a perfect metaphor for the traumatic experiences of American Twentieth Century life. In the skillful hands of the great satirist Vonnegut, who juxtaposes various periods of Billy's life with seemingly interconnected stages, it becomes a grand inquiry into the meaning of life itself. The Tralfamadorians teach Billy that all time is relative, all time occurs simultaneously, and if life has any meaning at all it is to strive to concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad. If such is the case, one wonders why the writer has used this structure to tell the narrative of his own traumatic war memories. Due to either his mental imbalance stemming from brain damage in the plane crash, or else through abilities he has learned from the aliens, Billy is thrown back and forth in time, experiencing and re-experiencing events throughout his life in a random fashion. From his childhood when his father throws him into a club swimming pool to "sink or swim," to his honeymoon night when his bride promises to lose weight "just for him," from his son's rebellious teenage years, to the death of his wartime friend Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche), Billy seems to be desperately searching for any good moments in his own life, but coming up empty. Then the Tralfamadorians provide him with at least one good memory, the companionship of movie sex-queen Montana Wildhack (Valerie Perrine, also in her screen debut) to share his days in the geodesic dome which protects them from the alien planet's deadly atmosphere.
For anyone who likes Vonnegut's books, this film should be considered a major triumph. The complexity of the novel posed major problems for scenarist Geller and director Hill, but both were up to the challenge. Most critics were convinced that Vonnegut's novel was unfilmable, and whereas it may not be perfect, it is certainly as good as anyone should have expected. In lesser hands it would probably have been as weak and abysmal as another Vonnegut adaptation, Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The author himself has publicly expressed his appreciation for the film, calling it a "flawless" translation of his novel.
"I drool and cackle every time I watch that film, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book." — [Vonnegut, from his introduction to Between Time and Timbuktu]
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Like so many of Vonnegut's books, Slaughterhouse-Five is populated with several recurring characters. Billy's hospital roommate, after the plane crash, is a member of the Rumford clan mentioned in several other novels, including The Sirens of Titan. Elliot Rosewater, from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, shares a hospital room with Billy following his first mental breakdown after the war. Even Vonnegut's alter-ego, the pulp author Kilgore Trout, makes an indirect appearance, as the author of the book being read by Rosewater.
Along with the brilliant screenplay and insightful direction, other highlights of the film include the sharply contrasting photographic styles between the German and American scenes, and the beautiful score of Bach music, arranged and performed by Glenn Gould. Along with Sacks, acting kudos go out to Ron Liebman as the revenge-obsessed Paul Lazzaro, Sharon Gans as Billy's doting wife, and Eugene Roche as his surrogate father-figure, Edgar Derby. For anyone not yet familiar with this story, I hope I have provided enough information to pique your interest in the film and book, and hopefully I've left enough out to avoid spoiling it too (for instance, the meaning of the title). Slaughterhouse Five may not be science fiction by exact definition, but it is certainly among the ranks of the greatest speculative inquiries into the human condition to have ever been written and translated to the screen.
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